Last Night's Television - True Stories: Cowboys in India, More4
How Earth Made Us, BBC2
Wednesday 20 January 2010
The Minoans, according to Iain Stewart, invented the day off. They never got round to inventing television though, and were thus unable to fill in their idle hours by watching pop-science documentaries. Instead, they had to wander down to whatever the Minoan equivalent of the agora was to take in a bit of bull-somersaulting, a sport that involves jumping over the top of charging bulls using their horns as a springboard. "How do you practise that?" asked Stewart, leaning in to the camera with a baffled expression on his face. "And which idiot first thought it would be a good idea to try?" I added mentally. But then, How Earth Made Us prompted a lot of questions about first movers. Which proto-Einstein, for example, thought, "You know... if we get these green rocks really, really hot they might turn into something useful"? And who was it who worked out that by digging a tunnel 50 metres beneath the Iranian desert you could tap into the subterranean reservoir dammed up behind a clay-filled tectonic rift? I've seen the cutaway graphics and I still can't work out how they knew what was down there.
Stewart promised us wonders and began with something dazzling, a cooling suit and a breathing mask to visit a recently discovered cave in Mexico. At first glimpse, this looked very pretty but underwhelming – the sort of thing you might find in any Dorset gift shop. Then Stewart stepped into the picture, walking across the surface of a crystal you'd assumed to be about five inches across. It was like Superman's arctic hideout down there, but for the fact that the humidity was at a 100 per cent and the central heating was provided by a hot spot of magma just five kilometres below the cave floor. It wasn't the last of his excursions, either. He wriggled through cliffs in the Negev, riddled with the boreholes of prehistoric copper miners, and took a stroll along one of the subterranean canals that turned the Iranian desert green. His main point being that the development of human civilisation has tended to cluster around the fissures in the planet's surface, like mildew growing out of the cracks in a bathroom tile.
Tectonic faults make life on the surface interesting, laying down mineral deposits that either look spectacular (like the gypsum crystals he began with) or perform spectacularly. And they often mean water too, even in places where you might not expect to get a lot, like the site of the ancient city of Petra, in modern Jordan. No free lunch obviously, since the geological instability that gives you these good things also occasionally decides to shake everything you've built to pieces. The Minoans, good as they were at leisure-time and bull-jumping, eventually went down to a catastrophic eruption that wiped out their chief entrepôt port (some shreds of O-level geography remain) and destroyed their trading fleet in a tsunami. But if the lunch is good and plentiful enough, people find that they can forget the fate of the Minoans. Ten out of 20 of the world's largest cities are built hazardously close to major fault lines, including Los Angeles, where the fault cuts across the Californian landscape like a badly stitched scar. Viewed in the light of what's just happened in Haiti, you couldn't help but wonder whether Chinese tourists will one day wander down Wilshire Boulevard admiring the ruins and wondering why on earth they didn't move somewhere safer.
I don't know whether bauxite concentrations bear any relation to tectonic faults, but they can screw up your life pretty well too.... or improve it immeasurably. Which of those two was what True Stories: Cowboys in India hoped to find out. It was one of those exercises in klutz film-making that hope that they can make up in gawky, self-deprecating charm what they very obviously lack in terms of structure and results. Simon Chambers opened his report on a controversial mine operation run by a company called Vedanta with a rather nice spaghetti Western parody, his two fixers waiting for his arrival at a lonely railhead. If the beginning had some shape, though, not much that followed did."Most of the time, I just couldn't understand what the hell was going on," Chambers glumly confided on the voiceover. And then the comedy started to darken, with threatening phone calls and low-level argy-bargy from Vedanta company minders. The locals accused the company of reneging on its promises of development. The company showed off some less than impressive child-care centres. The film petered out in claim and counter-claim, with no firm truth available, but for the knowledge that if the poor and powerless really had been treated well it would have been the first time in human history. To his credit, Chambers seems to have bought a second-hand jeep for his local assistants, allowing them to set up "Mr Saimon Travels". So whatever the truth about Vedanta's glossy grandstanding on social responsibility some local development has taken place.
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